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The Orioles again have baseball’s No. 1 prospect. They could make it three in a row. – Boston Herald


This time last year, Gunnar Henderson wasn’t among Baseball America’s 50 best prospects in the sport. Wednesday, the Orioles’ infielder was atop the publication’s top 100, going back-to-back in leading the rankings with fellow 2019 draftee Adley Rutschman.

Even after Henderson, a 21-year-old infielder, graduates from prospect status early this season, the Orioles will have a couple of players left in their deep farm system who won’t have to leap as far as he did to be considered baseball’s top prospect and give Baltimore that honor for the third straight offseason in 2024. They are already only the second organization to have different players ranked No. 1 overall in consecutive years and the first to have them come from the same draft class.

Henderson’s rise from No. 57 to No. 1 is a credit to not only him, but also the Orioles’ development system, one that led to seven other Baltimore minor leaguers joining Henderson on the list. Including Henderson, seven of the eight have already reached at least Triple-A, with the exception being Baltimore’s likeliest candidate to leap to the top spot.

The Orioles were able to select Rutschman with the opening pick of the 2019 draft because of the worst season in franchise history in 2018. The second worst, in 2021, allowed them to select shortstop Jackson Holliday first overall in 2022.

Orioles executives have already compared Holliday to Henderson. Both are infielders drafted out high school who hit left-handed, and each showed remarkable improvement in the spring leading up to his respective draft.

“There are a lot of parallels there,” Orioles director of draft operations Brad Ciolek said the night of Holliday’s selection.

Holliday, the 19-year-old son of former MLB All-Star Matt Holliday, ranks 15th in Baseball America’s list, the highest of any 2022 draftee after the publication initially had him third in the class. After the draft, he hit .297/.489/.422 in the Florida Complex League and Low-A, walking more than twice as often as he struck out. Between his senior season at Stillwater High School and his first experience in professional baseball, Holliday struck out in only 19 of his 255 plate appearances in 2022.

Like Henderson, Holliday’s rise to the top of the rankings would have to be more about his own performance than the graduations of the players in front of him. Three of the top seven prospects also have yet to turn 20, with Milwaukee’s Jackson Chourio, Philadelphia’s Andrew Painter and Miami’s Eury Pérez all reaching Double-A in 2022. Given the Orioles’ aggressiveness in promoting prospects up the minor-league ladder, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Holliday reach that level in 2023, echoing a path Henderson took in his first full season in 2021.

At the worst, Holliday likely will be the Orioles’ top-ranked prospect next offseason, with the two players in front of him, Henderson and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, both expected to be on Baltimore’s opening day roster and give the team a chance to earn an extra draft pick if either finishes as the American League Rookie of the Year. Of the remaining five Orioles prospects in the top 100 have reached Triple-A, left-hander DL Hall is the only one to have made his major league debut.

There are no guarantees that all members of that group graduate in 2023. For as willing as the Orioles’ front office has been to challenge prospects by advancing them through the farm system, that process has typically come to a halt when it comes to moving a player from Triple-A to the majors, a transaction that prompts considerations of service time, roster space and more. The Orioles’ efforts to contend this season could alter those considerations, but executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has long preached about having the big picture in mind when it comes to how he operates the organization.

Rodriguez had little left to prove in the minors when he suffered a right lat muscle strain that sidelined him for three months and kept him for making his debut and shedding prospect status in 2022. Henderson was the minors’ top hitter for much of the season but didn’t receive a promotion until a point in the season in which the Orioles could play him regularly but still ensure he wouldn’t get enough at-bats to lose rookie eligibility. Kyle Stowers closed 2021 in Triple-A — sharing organizational player of the year honors with Rutschman — but he didn’t have enough major league time in 2022 for Baseball America to no longer consider him a prospect; he’s ranked ninth in the system, Baltimore’s best prospect outside of the top 100.

Even though outfielder Colton Cowser and infielders Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz ended 2022 at Norfolk and will start 2023 as top 100 prospects, they could certainly still hold prospect status come next year depending on when they’re promoted. Ranked 41st a year after appearing at No. 98, Cowser would be Holliday’s top challenger to be Baltimore’s No. 1 prospect next year and likely the only other player in the system who could reasonably make the jump to No. 1 if he’s still eligible to be.

Across three levels in his first full professional season, the fifth-overall pick in the 2021 draft hit .278 with an .874 OPS and had his most success with Bowie, slashing .341/.469/.568. That level of performance in his second stint at Norfolk — echoing how Henderson dominated Double-A upon his return — would ideally prompt a call-up early enough for him to no longer be prospect-eligible next year. But it would otherwise propel him toward the top of rankings if the Orioles’ outfield depth, a factor in Stowers remaining a prospect, prompts Baltimore to give him everyday at-bats in the minors late into the season.

Regardless of whether the Orioles manage to secure a third straight No. 1 prospect, the possibility speaks to their drafting and development successes, even if they’ve been aided by early picks as a result of poor major league seasons. Still, all eight of their top 100 prospects were Orioles draftees, and only four were first-round picks, with Rodriguez and Hall picked 11th and 21st, respectively. Henderson, Westburg and Norby were Baltimore’s second selection in their respective drafts, while Ortiz went in the fourth round in 2019.

The Orioles’ first pick in 2023′s draft will be the 17th overall. In Henderson, Baltimore has already turned a No. 42 pick into a No. 1 prospect. Even as the major league team turns toward contention, Wednesday’s top 100 reveal shows the Orioles can remain capable of producing top talent.



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